It seems a lifetime ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v Connecticut that a Connecticut law prohibiting the use of contraceptives violated the right to marital privacy. Eight years later the Constitutional principles underlying that decision were pivotal to the court’s ruling in Roe v Wade which recognized that a woman’s right to have an abortion was a protected private decision with some exceptions.
Roe v Wade and access to safe contraception has helped make possible the hard-won gains that women have achieved during the past 40 years in education, employment and participation in public life. But the status of American women as full and equal citizens is being challenged just about every day by outspoken priests, pundits and politicians who are questioning long-established rights to family planning and other women’s health programs.
This assault has accelerated in the wake of the Republican tsunami that was the 2010 election. Rights first established in 1965 and strengthened in intervening years that empowered women by ensuring their right to abortion, healthcare, dignity, and privacy are today on the endangered list. Last week the battle moved to the United States Senate where the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” proposed by Senator Roy Blunt as an amendment to a Transportation Bill sought to allow any employer to opt out of abortion and contraceptive coverage, and any other health treatment based solely on the undefined determination of the employer’s religious and moral beliefs, including prenatal care, childhood vaccinations, cancer screenings, and mammograms. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rightfully denounced the bill as “an extreme, ideological amendment.” Fortunately the Blunt amendment was defeated by a vote of 51 to 48. Olympia Snowe of Maine was the only Republican to vote “nay.” The bill has been cited as one of Snowe’s principal reasons for her surprising decision to retire from the Senate. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska confessed to the Anchorage Daily News that “I have never had a vote I’ve taken where I have felt that I let down more people that believed in me.” She unhesitatingly said “no” when asked if she would vote the same way if she had it to do over again.
Apparently the qualms expressed by Senators Murkowski and Snowe are not shared by the Democratic Senior Senator from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey Jr. Casey joined only two other Democratic Senators, Ben Nelson (NE) and Joe Manchin (WV), in voting for the Blunt Amendment, insisting that the alternative position supported by other Democrats does not go far enough to protect the Constitutional liberties of religious institutions and employers–despite recent concessions by the Obama Administration. Casey’s vote was reminiscent of many of his earlier votes, most notably his vote against federal funding of stem cell research in 2007 (supported by 63 Senators including 17 Republicans). Ben Nelson was the only other Democrat who voted with Casey. That bill, vetoed by President Bush, became law when President Obama enacted it via an Executive Order.
It is time to hold Senator Casey accountable. Women should not need a permission slip from the government or employers to address their reproductive health needs, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the women of Pennsylvania cannot trust Senator Casey to protect their health and defend their rights. Casey had an opportunity to stand by the dignity and well-being of women on the Blunt amendment but chose instead to stand with Republicans and the likes of Rush Limbaugh. Casey’s vote made it clear that he supports the religious and moral beliefs of employers above comparable rights and beliefs of women. No explanation can mitigate this fundamental fact. Ironically, ensuring women’s access to contraception would reduce the number of abortions, something the anti-choice Casey should support.
Indeed, Casey has a lot of explaining to do. During his 2006 Senate campaign, Casey gave verbal assurances to women’s rights organizations that his abortion position would not translate into opposition to women’s health measures or support for the Catholic Church’s position on contraception. And Democratic leaders supporting Casey said that women’s rights would be safe from votes for Supreme Court nominees who would rollback women’s rights. That too proved false. For Casey, a commitment to women’s health and rights is nothing but political rhetoric, as his broken promises prove. It is time for us as Pennsylvanians to ask whether we can, in good conscience, vote for him in November.